Updated: Jun 15, 2022
In my previous short poem post "Ko e ki'i fehu'i", I talk about my experience of subtle racism and microaggression, as well as my confused sense of identity and acceptance from my Hafe-kasi background. This time, let's talk about colourism.
Colourism: prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group (Oxford Dictionary).
First of all, I acknowledge my privilege that I am light-skinned. I have an Asian skin tone and skin colour. In my previous poem post, I talked about being othered and experiencing racism for looking Asian specifically in Tonga and more recently in the UK at the start of the Covid pandemic. Usually, outside of Tonga (pre-covid times too), my skin colour isn't an issue. I remember walking around the shopping malls in New Zealand and Australia with my Tongan cousins, who are darker-skinned than I am, and they would be the ones the security guards would eye with suspicion. That's a common example of racial microaggression against Brown/Pasifika people in Western countries, and we can talk about that on a different day, so let's focus on colourism today.
Let's be honest now. How often have you heard your Tongan family members associate whiteness with beauty? How often have you seen a newborn baby and hear aunties cooing "Haueee, sio kihe talavou mo e hinehina". How often have you been told by Tongan aunties to stay out of the sun because you might get dark and ugly? Have you ever been discouraged by your Tongan family from dating/marrying someone because they were dark-skinned and you might have dark babies in the future? How about this one? "Maumau ene mata talavou ka 'oku 'uli'uli" Such a pretty/handsome face, it's a shame they're so dark-skinned 🤦🤦 Do you notice something? These are examples of colourism in the Tongan context with the subtle associations that are made here being:
Hinehina = talavou/sai vs. 'Uli'uli=Palakuu/kovi
White=Beautiful/good vs. Black=Ugly/bad
How does that association even make sense? It doesn't make sense in a world that is evolving and becoming more diverse and colourful. When whiteness/light-skinned is associated with beauty and attractiveness, how do you think that affects the self-image and confidence of those who don't fit that "ideal" and are darker-skinned? 🤦 This idea of "white being superior" is a left-over and outdated relic of colonialism and white supremacy which has become embedded too deep into Tongan culture, and we need to throw this whole thing out. That's that.
You know, I have a lot of older cousins on my Tongan side and growing up, we always had a couple of cousins living at our house for school. They were in High school while I was still in Primary. These cousins are funny, diligent, kind, athletically talented and helped look after us really well. My parents gave us all a weekly allowance ($10 TOP for the big kids, and $5 TOP for us small kids). I remember my older cousins saving their money to buy Fair and Lovely cream, which they said was for skin-lightening and pimples. They didn't like the colour of their skin and they didn't like pimples. This was the early 2000's and I think Fair and Lovely cream cost around $7-$9 TOP for a tiny tube so it was kinda pricey. Considering our allowance wasn't that much, there was only so much they could have bought.
My teenaged cousins used Fair and Lovely cream religiously, but I didn't see any change in their skin colour nor any reduction of their pimples quantity 🤷♀️. Through pure placebo effect, using Fair and lovely cream made them feel and act more confident, I suppose because they thought their skin became lighter and whiter. I just wish that they hadn't internalised what they were taught by society and our own families first that dark skin is ugly. My cousins had far more talent and notable characteristics, only to have their worth reduced to the colour of their skin. Dark skin is not ugly. It's not. There are other things far uglier in the world, and dark skin colour is not on that ugly list.
Here's a different story. Remember a few years ago, when the Miss Pacific Islands beauty pageant was won by the beautiful and intelligent Miss Papua New Guinea (Ms Leoshina Kariha)? I watched her performance online during the pageant, and she was amazing. She attended the Miss Heilala pageant in Tonga the following year as a special guest, and someone in the audience called her some racist slurs and insults based on her skin colour. That was absolutely unnecessary and total scum behaviour. People had the audacity to say that to a GUEST and Tonga is supposedly called the Friendly Islands. If they had the gall to say something insulting about skin colour in a public setting, imagine what they must say in their homes to their darker-skinned family members and friends. That's on colourism.
I based this poem as a continuation, I suppose, of "Ko e ki'i fehu'i" and still within the Tongan context and my reflections/experiences. My skin colour at times has made me experience racist acts and feel othered. Yet, depending on the context, my foreign coloured light skin is considered to be more "acceptable" and "preferred" than darker skin tones. "Too White" and we'll call you muli/palangi/foreigner. "The right white" then we'll call you beautiful. Anything beyond that, we'll call you ugly. Like, what? It's also vexing that when you try to talk about racism and colourism, people tend to laugh it off and say it's not a big deal. What's also saddening is that we hear these casual jokes and mocking inside our families first. When you call people out on it, they say "Matuitui. Tuku ho vale he fakakata". How is it funny and entertaining to mock a defining feature of a person they have no control over? How is it funny and entertaining to keep continuing a cycle of distasteful jokes of which the punchline is bringing someone else down? You tell me.
Remember how I said there are other things far uglier in the world? Racism and Colourism are up there as some of the ugliest things in the world. Along with homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism and a whole bunch of other things we can talk about in a different story. In my humble opinion, people who accept, tolerate and promote racism and colourism and let it slide, are pretty ugly to me (Looking at you, Trump & Supporters 🤮🤮🤮). But that's just me.
I'm not perfect, and I have ignorantly used words or thought of racist/colourist things in the past when I was younger. I fucked up in the past and that's inexcusable. I've grown up now and I've learnt that it's not ok. I'm sorry to anyone I've ever offended. It was wrong of me and I will never say it again.
I feel like acknowledging my privileges and mistakes has been a big part of growing for me. To grow means so many things too. To learn new things. To question things we've been taught. To unlearn things. To make mistakes, learn from them and apologise. It's not always easy, but that's the point. Growth is hard and so is changing. I definitely am not the same person I was at ages 5, 10, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25 and now. Those are all different versions of me, who all had different lessons to learn. At each stage, I had to find the courage to speak up and challenge things I thought aren't right, like in today's blog, the casual normalisation of colourism in the Tongan context. Really fam, it's gotta stop.
I really could go on with many more stories and examples about colourism in the every day, but to end my # Ta'emahino Tuesday blog, let me leave you with this quote to mull over:
"Colourism is the daughter of racism...in a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin" - Lupita Nyong'o
Tu'a 'ofa atu.